Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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On a recent trip to Grand Cayman we ran into a series of situations concerning eating that some may be interested in hearing about. In a nutshell eating out is an expensive proposition on 7 Mile Beach strip and in GT. The most out of line price was US$25 for breakfast at the Hyatt. It was a buffet style arrangement however all of the prepared 'hot' foods were cold! Personally we felt more than ripped off. Mind you others raved about the place & the breakfast. The setting was okay but again IMHO not worth the cost. On top of that the room was open so birds kept on flying in to grab scraps from the vacated tables. Even beat the serving staff for the tips. The next place of notoriety was the Almond Tree. Albeit the management is changing .. and we got the new manager. A promised wait of 15 minutes turned into almost an hour. When seated we suddenly realized that most patrons were not eating - everyone was waiting for their order to be filled. My wife and sister-in- law ordered seafoood linguini after the server assured them that in contained shrimp & lobster. It did - one small scrap of lobster and two teeny tiny shrimp. When we commented to the server she said that she had noticed that this had been happening lately ... hmmmm ... new manager.... When we brought our complaint to the manager not much happened- no offer of reduced price, etc. and for an apology we got an excuse - 'I'm new...' Interestingly other clients were also complaining - and the table beside us concurred with our complaint while another nearby couple just got up and left - albeit without paying for their drinks. They were really upset! Others have commented on the Wharf - we concur over priced for what you get - even if you are used to Cayman prices it still is over priced. Now the good news... breakfast at the Holiday Inn is also buffet - US$8 - far better than Hyatt. Also a good breakfast at the Treasure Island Resort (same price) yet much quieter ... therefore quicker service or a slower paced meal - your choice. Big Daddy's just south of the Treasure Island Resort is probably the best for value for dinner. Most nights had a 'all-you-can- eat' special at 'reason' (for Cayman) prices. Friday there is a happy hour - free 'snacks' - our visit they had chicken wings, tacos, chili & other items. Drink prices are also good here. Another nice place is Rackman's almost in town. On a jetty, open air. At night the tarpon glide past and you can feed them if inclined. There are lights along the jetty so you can readily see the fish. the Paradise just south of the Atlantis Sub is a nice outdoor type drinking hole. Reasonable and friendly - though they don't care if you get roaring drunk and fall out of the place - even though one of their patrons in this state was killed in a car accident of his doing. They should have stopped him from driving. Considering diving is the reason for most Cayman visits & diving and drinking don't mix, IMHO the bar should have been more alert. The Lone Star restaurant. I did not mention it because it is part of a restaurant chain. Usual tex/mex stuff - about mid way up SMB. It has a good atmosphere & an 'interesting' decor. I wont say what , just to entice you - look up when you get inside. Get there early. One solution to food costs is to normal plan of eating outside the tourist area or during off hours. BTW the eastern and southern part of the island are cheaper and possibly better than SMB restaurants. If you like local Caribbean food like salt fish & ackee, etc you will find such delicacies in these areas for around US$3.00 Another solution to high food costs, Kirk Supermarket. It is at the bottom of 7 Mile Beach. If your hotel has a small frig then get fruit & drink from Kirk. They also have a good sandwich bar and salad bar. The variety is as good as any supermarket. And if you really have to have a 'fix' every fast food outlet imaginable is represented - I think I counted 6 Domino's Pizza. as a final bit of humor - a woman on our plane was an obvious repeat visitor and knew about the food costs. She had packed another suitcase just with food - but she over did it and had to pay excess baggage costs. Not a happy camper was she!
Costa Rica's Last Train Out. A Brief Dash Up the Eco-tourism Trail Costa Rica. Pristine land of lost. Brilliant, brilliant green. Exploding volcanoes; mountains, hills, and valleys. Rivers you can drink from. An eternity of beaches. Enormous flowers. Tropical forests. Animals everywhere. Air so lush you want to bathe in it. Picture an outdoor theme park the size of Wisconsin or the pacific northwest with heat and dinosaurs. That's the brochure kids; now for a stroll down reality lane. This was, and is, a third world country. Its infrastructure is overwhelmed, shredded, and crumbling from sedentary officials, graft and the loss of its patron saint, us (US). You want to talk roads? A rent-a-car is $400 a week with a $750 deductible. Know why? The roads eat the cars. You can go from four lane to mud in 400 feet; from a two lane at 50 mph to a one way, 10 foot wide bridge with 15 feet of warning. Per capita, four times as many people die on these roads as do in the US. And you know we don t know how to drive. How about sewer. The older towns and villages dump raw sewage in the rivers, lakes and oceans. The locals won t swim in some of the rivers or at several of the beaches. When you re drinking with them they can t believe you don t mind swimming in their toilets. The surfers answer is that if they trained at Redondo and Manhattan, they can dodge the slicks as they pump out of the estuaries. Not quite the post card I had envisioned. Air? San Jose ranks slightly better than LA; but below Houston in air quality. The diesel is so thick and the traffic so bad you can t tell the difference between San Jose and Mexico City. Thank God the rest of the country only supports one third of the country s cars and buses Crime? The street crime also ranks right up there with Mexico City and Rome: primarily auto break ins, pick pockets, and purse thieves. Street people politely suggest that you require their services whenever you park your car. You do. You can pay them to keep their friends and neighbors from robbing or damaging your car or you risk suffering the consequences. Fortunately, although I heard a lot about violence against people, I never saw even a hint of it. And we proudly patrolled some of the less than cultural areas of the metropolis, in occasionally less than tip top physical condition. Given the above, it must be cheap, huh? Not so fast Columbus. We stayed in rooms ranging from $49 to $149. Only one ($95) was worth the money. The rest were uniformly third world quality, service and value--all at first world prices. We paid anywhere from $0.80 to $4.00 for local beer that cost the seller $.033. Lobster that cost $2.00 and should have retailed for $8-$10 was typically $25+. We tested the new Melia Conchal for lunch. You ready one diet Coke, one Pina Colada, two cheeseburgers, tax and 10% tip:--$47.00; AND the food was average. Even better, we ate breakfast at the San Jose Holiday Inn, a quick buffet with only four items and fruit. At IHOP it s three bucks even though they don t pay their staff $1.50 per hour and they do pay real estate taxes. In Costa Rica it should have been a $1.00, maybe $1.50 tops. You guessed it explorers, $12.50 per person. Yes I should have asked first, but it was early in the trip and I didn t know tourist meant food fish in Costa Rican. But you can drink the water. And if you are very well prepared, speak the language (that would be Spanish NOT English), have a sense of humor, and consider yourself durable, there are pieces of a lovely country still out there populated by interesting and fun folks. Yes, yes, yes, I am keenly aware that this country was not founded and populated for my edification. However, it was suggested by the government s tourist bureau, multiple guidebooks, travel agents, and assorted vacation hawkers that my compatriots and I spend our money within its borders. This is an implied contract of sorts, don t you think? We pay and you show us a good time; or at least show us what you said was here when we were negotiating. How to have fun in Costa Rica Rank Lets begin by listing the World Class things about the country, shall we: 1. It has an erupting Volcano. top 10 2. Scuba Diving with enormous fish, 15 minutes from shore top 10 3. Sport fishing top 5 4. Windsurfing top 2 5. Close proximity river rafting (class I-V), riding, sea kayaking top 20 6. You can swim in both oceans, Caribbean and Pacific, on the same day, without monumental effort. top 10 7. Twenty seven percent of its land mass is in protected reserves top 5 8. A new Robert Trent Jones course that may end up costing $1.0 million per hole top 50 And lets include some other elements that are by no means world class, but may be of interest to a few of you: 1. Legalized gambling 2. Legalized prostitution 3. Interesting tax and banking laws (think Bob Vesco and Donald Nixon) 4. A population that does not hate Americans, yet How to proceed Do not stay in San Jose. Do not hub and spoke day trips from San Jose. If you can avoid it, don t even fly over San Jose. Stop thinking about San Jose. Do not mention Dione Warwick s name, they don t remember her and she can t help you here. You must get out into the country. That s where the cool stuff is. You are going to require assistance, private maps, and more than a little patience. Even though the country is tiny, don t try to fit in all of its world class elements you ll end up spending way too much time on those more than miserable roads. No matter what the experts tell you, pick one or two spots that have most of the stuff you want to do and stay there. Our completely biased recommendations will be available in paperback shortly. Rule # 1: BE PREPARED There are virtually no road signs in the country. Addresses are on streets with no names and they read this way: "200 meters from the white rock that used to be by the Church". Quaint, huh? Try finding that place if you don t speak Spanish. Cartography isn t even practiced in theory here yet, so don t rely on the maps. Rule # 2: DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT To quote Tucker Comstock of Serendipity Adventures, " .the potholes and fog will kill you". By the way, this is a fearless lady and it s her No. 1 Rule. Rule # 3:DURING LOW SEASON DON T BOOK ANYTHING IN ADVANCE Tourism is crashing badly everywhere in the country. Had we not booked hotels in advance we could have saved 50%. Due to price gouging, poor facility design, and poorer service, the entire country has a huge oversupply of rooms. Rule # 4: DO NOT TRUST THE GUIDE BOOKS AND TRAVEL AGENTS After going to nine bookstores and four travel agents, we bought the four most current books at a combined cost of $65.29: Frommers, Fodors 96, Choose Costa Rica, and the Costa Rica Handbook. The most current Frommers on the market, in Austin in August 96, was published in 1994; the Fodors 96 was published in 1995; the Costa Rica Handbook in 1994; and Choose Costa Rica in 1994. Not only was the information dated, in many cases it was woefully inaccurate. Frommers gave the hotel Sugar Beach one of their "Frommer s Favorites" the place was literally melting. Although we had a grand time eating and drinking with the managers, Gordon and Heidi, the hotel itself had seen far better days. And the road in? .top 5 worst we traveled in the country. Fodor s 96 weighed in with the blindest hotel rec, the Hotel Ocotal, giving it one of its highly touted stars (most recommended). Be advised, we either stayed in, or inspected, 27 hotels in three weeks. El Ocotal was hands down the worst. The service was pitiful. The facility was run down and other than a few, the staff was asleep. They would not play music in the bar or the restaurant, only CNN day and night. At night they would not dim the lights in the bar or restaurant, keeping it so bright you needed to wear a hat or order Chinese food. On arrival we ordered a massage for the following day. A no show. We asked to have our a/c fixed, three times. We asked to have screens reinstalled on our windows to combat the mosquitoes and lack of a/c, three times. The "recommended beach" was so strewn with litter and garbage that the hotel s Dive Shop employees had to wade through it to get to the water. We were there two days. No, they never picked it up. And this gem also from Frommer s re: Manuel Antonio s international reputation, " .simply that it is one of the most beautiful locations in the country ..Gazing down it is almost impossible to hold back a gasp of delight." Excuse me? It took us ten hours round trip from Flamingo to go for the gasp. It wasn t quite that fabulous. Frankly, it was disgusting and disconcerting. A brief explanation for you devotees of Frommer s: Manuel Antonio is a national park comparable in hype to Yellowstone in the US. To enter Manuel Antonio you must wade across an estuary at low tide or be paddled across for 100 colones at high tide. Pretty cool, Disney kinda action with waves breaking in the bay. Unfortunately, legal and illegal businesses just upstream are pouring raw sewage in the river. You guessed it, this is one of those spots that some of my local drinking companions were laughing about. This spot supposedly gets 70% of the tourists who land at San Jose Airport, about 350,000 people each year and each one pays $6 for the opportunity to surf the sewer system. Yes, I was one of them. No, I am not happy about it. The disconcerting part is that this is a country that is promoting Eco-tourism, and God knows that is a concept whose time has come. They re grossing $2.1 million per year and can t / won t stop people from defecating at the front door of their Number One tourist attraction. Heaven knows the US is by no means leading the world in Eco responsibility, but we are good at marketing. I went to art school, but even I know you don t ask someone to travel across the world, visit your shinning star, and then give it a high colonic while they watch. To be fair to Frommer s and Fodor s, all of the guidebooks had similar faux pas (read completely blind, were they ever there? statements). When they read this they will undoubtedly want me to list them for their attorneys. I will be happy to do so and post the results on the net. But in the interest of brevity, you guys need to trust me on Rule #4. Talk to people who have been there, in person and recently. Rule # 5:DO NOT COME HERE FOR A BAHAMAS, HAWAII, OR COASTAL MEXICO STYLE VACATION To get the most for your money, think active and adventure and in low season bring your own party. The basic beaches on the Pacific compare to Mexico s (not much, but OK) with no infrastructure. That would be great if they were deserted. They re not. The ones that are, are for a reason (see above). We met a lot of people, but remember we were working and hence had reason to be thrown into the stream. Most straight tourist folks will have to press to find comrades in low season. The surfers we met were young and had yet to see much action elsewhere. They were enjoying themselves, but bitched about the waves and the prices. The top stuff was the countryside in the interior and the water related excursions. What follows is our crew s consensus of the top events during our three weeks in country: 1. Two earthquakes in Quepos, a 5.0 and a 5.6. 2. Arenal Volcano erupting: "Los Ojos del Diablo". 3. Crashing the balloon at dawn into a Teak plantation whose owners were kidnapped four days later. 4. Ruff riding at La Garza near Muelle. 5. Rafting the lower Sarapiqui. 6. Sea kayaking with the crocs at Witch s Rock. 7. Bungee jumping off the Colorado bridge. 8. Guaro. 9. Driving. Our Completely Biased Recommendations HOTELS TOP HOTEL It was a B&B. Posada Las Palomas on the Rio Grande gorge, 500 feet above the Colorado river (30 minutes northwest of San Jose). Beautiful native stone and hardwood suites done in James Clavell meets the Caribbean. Boatloads of indoor/outdoor luxury and privacy. It rises majestically from the middle of a coffee plantation on manicured lawns surrounded by dense tropical flowers and 30 foot bamboo forests with coffee and orange trees marching to the cliffs. Mountain and valley views forever. San Jose s lights are far enough away that the place actually looks enchanting at night. Beautiful, relaxing pool below the great house on the bluff. Two Rottweilers, multiple four foot Iguanas, and two wonderful owner/managers, Mike and Joanna Bresnan. These people get it kids ..they re in the hospitality business. Both are marginally reformed children of the sixties who helped build the Peace Corps before it was fashionable. Joanna designed the Inn and Mike built it. Do not ever visit Costa Rica without staying with or saying hello to these people. Absolutely top of the line. Call them first and early, they don t have many rooms and they re gonna be real popular real soon. NEXT BEST HOTEL Villa Caletas (above Jaco). A cliff side, restored Victorian mansion with ocean views to die for. Pricey and toney, but carried off well. Stay in the main house, not the villas. Killer pool. They advertise culture, but this place oozes other impulses. Don t take a friend, take a very good friend and don t plan on much small talk. HOTEL WITH MOST POTENTIAL Hotel Tilawa (Lake Arenal). Best Mexican food in the country, bar none. The owner, John Paul, is a windsurfer from New Mexico. He and his crew like to party and in season, this place ROCKS. It s got marinas, great indoor and outdoor public spaces, boat trips to the volcano (30 minutes), and rooms for $50. The Equus bar is around the corner. Grand drinking/dancing spot but don t drink Guaro with the locals unless you re prepared to trade up from Mescal. These guys are pros and take no prisoners. We recommend that you train in Tilawa s Delfin Bar for a couple of days before you step up to the show. If you like exploding volcanoes, surfing and sailing, mountain horseback riding, and homemade hot sauce, Tilawa should definitely be one of your two stops in country. HOTEL FROM HELL El Ocotal. Just reminding you. There are not enough lawyers on the planet to defend these guys. RESTAURANTS Hotel Tilawa s Rosetta. There is no better Mexican food in Costa Rica. Their homemade hot sauce is as good as anything in Austin. Ask 4 11" Cecilia to make what ever she s in the mood for. Eat til you re speaking Spanish, then head for Guaro central. Chubasco s, 20 minutes from Posada Las Palomas toward Alajuella (Mike or Joanna can give you directions). The best real Tico food we had. We heard of a Neuvo Tico spot in San Jose, but couldn t find it. Chubasco s does not serve alcohol, but if you use Mike s name you can bring your own. The owner s name is Alberto. He built the place from scratch; employs his whole family and half the village. Very local. Lots of young people working with lots of energy. The only way to order is total Tico. Try the Fiesta Platter with the cornmeal and sour cream appetizers or the posole. Be ready to be full. Oh yeah, bring $20 for 4 people, you ll need it all. BARS El Grande Escape in Quepos. Marsha Bennett (your proprietor) does a pretty strong tugboat Annie impression. She s heavy into sport fishing and customer reality sessions. Don t offer her advice without your checkbook. Great spot to hoist several and meet the local color. We hung out there whenever we were in town. Ask for Marsha s sidekick, Billy smart guy, a lot of fun to drink with and listen to, if he s in the mood to be civil. The Del Ray Bar in the Hotel Del Ray, San Jose. How to be polite about this? OK, it s where American expats watch football, smoke Cuban cigars and hang out with SJ s versions of 42nd and Broadway. Not for the timid, but not lacking a certain sawdust appeal either. Don t eat there. Taos, San Jose. Upscale yuppie sports bar with Armani suits, attorneys, and really pretty women. Very good food and reasonable prices. The food offset the attorneys nicely. The Mariner Inn Bar, Mariner Inn, Flamingo. All local color (the locals are mostly gringos). Adventure tour guides and their accomplices, real estate brokers, F & B workers from the other spots, and the ever present covey of down and outers hovering at the equator. Sort of bank fraud meets Gilligan s Island. CASINOS Most of the casinos in the country have two or three tables. Blackjack is not recommended, as you are not given Vegas odds and in some cases the decks are short favoring the house. If you re gonna play, shoot craps. We found a straight game at the Colonial in San Jose; Vegas odds and dice dealers who could count. Do not play at the El Parador or the Divi in Manuel Antonio. You ve been warned. The Colonial is new, has about 20 tables, and is building a sports book upstairs. The staff is a tad stiff, but friendly. They had the Tyson-Seldon fight on at the bar, no charge. Use Clarence or Chester to watch your car out front; very professional street Rastas with a lot of time on their hands. Ambers, Flamingo. We played blackjack here cause they agreed to fan the deck. It s a straight game, friendly and well run, but remember the odds aren t as good as Vegas. Rustic, open air above the marina, with lovely, cost efficient companionship available at the bar. The food is highly touted, but I d pass and eat in Brasilito at El Cameron Dorado. ADVENTURE TOURS We toured with a couple of companies and might recommend Serendipity of Michigan and Costa Rica. It s run by Tucker Comstock and her band of merry men. These people are not normal. Safe to them is almost everyone will live through it. We did class III rapids in individual kayaks (duckies?); galloping horse treks through fast rivers into the jungle; climbed something called the strangler tree; and hot air ballooned above the rain forest. They wanted us to kayak with 500 crocodiles, rappel down waterfalls, and scuba with enormous herds of manta rays. We told them sure, wait for us, we d be right back; then hid out in the Del Ray, happy we d lived through the first segments. Eventually we did agree to bungee off a 300 bridge above the Colorado just to save face. There were no near death experiences. They felt we did not get our money s worth. Truthfully, they ve got a pretty fair grip on providing you a custom trip, fitted to the level of soft or serious adventure you desire. They weren t perfect in their arrangements, but it was understandable as they work with natural conditions that change hourly. We saw some amazing stuff and met several candidates for Ramma of the Jungle. Steve Whetman (Brit) is the ring leader who plans the trips. Paul (Brit) is your Harrison Ford and Mariano (Tico) " is the only living balloon pilot in Costa Rica". I m thinking Mariano gets a lot of mileage out of this with the ladies. Alex (Tico) drives the chase car and handles supplies. He doesn t speak English, but is the only one you can trust that positively wants to live until tomorrow. Stick close to him, he s got a family. As much as we liked some elements of the country, we wouldn t recommend going unless you intended to avail yourself of some professional s expertise and stumble through their adventures. I include Serendipity s number for those of you that have done sex, drugs, and rock n roll and are now ready for the next step: 800-635-2325. I don t recommend letting them make your hotel (prepaid) reservations. They didn t perform on several of ours and haven t/couldn t/wouldn t provide refunds. Happy trails. REAL ESTATE BROKERS Normally we wouldn t offer our advice in this area as part of a travel manifesto but Rain Forest Bob merits inclusion. Bob Davey owns the Marina Trading Post in Flamingo. You want hotels, beach front lots, 2,500 acre fincas (farms), Cuban cigars Slash and Burn Bob is your boy. He s been down here six years and is still reasonably sane. His wife Patty runs the Trading Post and uncle Bob runs the town. If it s about to happen in Flamingo, Bob s got his hand in it. If you re inclined to own a piece of Jurassic Park, call Bob and he ll put you in a one owner model. WHERE NOT TO GO AND WHAT NOT TO DO Do not go to Manuel Antonio National Park go to Punta Leone instead. Do not go to the Monteverde Cloud Forest go to Arenal Volcano (awesome, walk up to the steaming lava) and the Tabacon hot springs. Do not go to San Jose go straight from the airport to Posada Las Palomas. Do not go to Jaco unless you re a surfer or broke, or young and both. Do not go to Hotel El Ocotal. Our last reminder. CONCLUSIONS Costa Rica offers some world class adventure travel in an amazingly confined space. As with most third world destinations, it s got some colorful characters, some less than comfortable accommodations and no infrastructure. Prices are way out of line at the "resorts" but great in the real country. If you go, and we recommend you do, call Serendipity and/or Mike and Joanna to make your arrangements. Drive less than we did and party more. Via con Dios.
[Playa del Carmen is located about 35 miles south of Cancun. It's one side of the ferry to Cozumel and is a Cruise Ship stop.] Viva Club Maya Beach was excellent! Its actually part of a smaller chain of resorts called the Viva Clubs. I think what they're trying to do with these is to fill them with time-shares ("you buy vacations, NOT timeshares!"), so I'm not sure how long you'll be able to book this resort through a travel agent. There were a LOT of couples walking through the place with a salesperson. We spoke to one couple who was staying at the resort and had decided to take the time-share tour to get free tickets to Cozumel. They said it wasn't worth the HIGH sales pitch and garbage. [They try to sell you a minimum of 30 vacations for $13,500 and then it costs around $240/year for some nonsense annual fees and explain how much money your saving!] As far as the resort goes, it's very new (opened in January '97), has a nice big pool, two restaurants (one big one and one near the pool). I thought the food was very good (some things were excellent - like the GUACAMOLE!, others were average - a fair amount of seafood on the menu). I've been to Club Med and found the food to be comparable, if not a tiny bit better. The bar service (two main bars) was downright excellent! Rooms were nice, two double beds, and included a small balcony with view of the ocean. The grounds are kept up impeccably and there are many flowers/ornamental shrubs around. One strange thing is the lack of purified water in the rooms. Instead they give you a one liter bottle of water every day for drinking, brushing your teeth, etc. I thought this was a bit of an annoyance. Another small thing, there is no dead-bolt or chain on the door, so anyone with a key can't walk right into your room -this actually happened a few times when the maid decided it was time to clean the room (say excuse me while opening the door) and also once a manager barged in and asked us if we were checking out (we had just checked in!). Rooms come with a safe deposit box and a smaller color TV (no remote) that has HBO and CNN. The tennis courts weren't quite through yet, but they allowed us to play down the road at the golf club for free - they even provided racquets/balls. The courts are probably finished now though. They have a very nice weight room, but unfortunately isn't air- conditioned and has no water -so bring some w/you if you work out. Staff was VERY friendly and they had daily activities including dance (mamba/meringue) lessons, water aerobics, volleyball/water polo, beach/egg toss, beach walk to cenote, etc. Entertainment was pretty fun but varied nightly - i.e. the guest/talent show one night was pretty bad but the rendition of Grease by all of the employees was quite good. They have a HUGE outdoor stage right in the middle of the resort. The disco opened after the show around 11:00 PM - its open-air and very BOOMY. It seemed to attract a lot of the employees and their buddies. One really nice feature was the bikes you can take out at the resort. We used them to tool around the Playacar resort area and go into town (only about 1.5 mile each way). Erosion seems to be a BIG problem at Playa del Carmen. Most of the resorts North of Club Maya Beach had there beaches reduced SIGNIFICANTLY by the higher winds and waves. For instance the Diamond Resort (right next door) didn't have much beach left! Club Maya Beach had plenty of beach though (and topless action too ;-0 ), so don't worry about it here - for now anyway. We met a lot of people from the N.H./Boston area too! A fair amount of Europeans were also at the resort. Visiting the city of Playa del Carmen is only $3-4 US by taxi and is fun - especially at night. We went to the restaurant Media Luna and it was very good. Have fun and avoid the timeshare salespitch!
My wife and I just returned from a fabulous week-long vacation on St. Lucia. We thought we'd post our experience in case it would be helpful for others. As you have probably read elsewhere, St. Lucia is a beautiful island. We loved the lush vegetation, the fresh tropical fruits, and the incredible scenery found around the island, especially the Pitons and the tropical rain forest. If you want to adventure out beyond your resort hotel, St. Lucia is a great place to check out. Weather It rained briefly almost every night during our week in St. Lucia (I guess that's what keeps everything so green), but it never failed to clear up in the morning; we enjoyed great weather during our stay. Highs were in the low 80's every day. At night, we always enjoyed a nice cool breeze, but never had to worry about getting cold or even needing a jacket. Humidity was not nearly as bad as I expected, and we had no problems with insects, even when we went through the forest. The Hotel The Wyndham is an all inclusive resort, so we never had to venture far for a meal or a good tropical drink. We really enjoy the no hassle experience of the all inclusives; there are no bills to be paid, and no tips to be made; just relax and enjoy! We found the grounds at the Wyndham to be beautifully maintained, the rooms were nice, and the staff friendly. The Food The food at the Wyndham was great. Breakfast is a buffet served in the main restaurant (the resort has two). Try the fresh fruits or the made to order omelets! For lunch you have a choice between a buffet in the main restaurant, or something from the grill at the Palm Grill. Seems like we always ate too much, but it's vacation, after all. For dinner you again have two choices: At the main restaurant you can have a sit down meal, where you order off a menu. Reservations and long pants are required. The Palm Grill has a buffet dinner. Each night has a different theme, and lots of choices to boot. You really can't go wrong either way. Daytime Activities Your day at the Wyndham can be as relaxed or as active as you like. One day in particular serves as a great contrast. My wife, nursing the effects of a few too many "all included" drinks the night before, spent the entire day relaxing by the pool. By the time I was ready for dinner, I had gone swimming, sailing, water-skiing, tubing, kayaking, won a bottle of Champaign in a ping pong tournament, and played tennis. There are organized activities scheduled throughout the day, from group tennis or golf lessons, to volleyball games or horseshoe contests. Sign-up! It's a great way to meet people, and you don't have to be good to win a prize. Only downside: The beach at the Wyndham is great for water- sports, but not the ideal spot for snorkeling. If you are a serious diver, or want to be able to snorkel right by your hotel, best bet is a hotel in the southwest portion of the island. The Wyndham has four tennis courts. Two are hardcourt and lighted; two are grass courts. St. Lucia is probably not the Island for serious golfers, but you can play. We had a pro from the St. Lucia Golf Club (9 hole course) give a free lesson at the putting green at the hotel. 18 holes of golf will cost you $27, plus a cart if you want it. The pro said he would throw in free club rental for anyone who attended his class. One of the Sandals resorts also has a golf course. Evenings While perhaps not worldclass, the entertainment at the Wyndham was enjoyable. The main bar at the resort stayed open until midnight, and had some type of entertainment every night: local bands, flame eating limbo dancing, etc. The bar at the Palm Grill stayed open until 1:00. St. Lucia seems to be more of a couples destination than a singles hot spot. Excursions While I could probably just play beach volleyball by the resort and be happy, a visit to St. Lucia would not be complete without getting out to experience some of the Island. Two experiences we'd recommend: The Jeep Safari tour is an all day event that takes you up into the mountains by the rainforest. Our guide, "Big Joe" was part philosopher, part comedian; he did a great job giving us a feel for the history and local culture of the island. We spent part of the day hiking up to swim in a waterfall in the forest, then had lunch at Marigot Bay (beautiful!) and spent the afternoon snorkeling. Once you've seen the island by land, a trip by water is in order. There are several official organized tours you can take for around $75 US, but if you stay at the Wyndham, we found a more unique experience that I would highly recommend! There is a guy named Joey who operates his own boat and organizes tours from the beach by the hotel. You will get a much more personalized tour (8 people instead of 80), and Joey really has a smooth operation. He takes you down the West side of the Island by boat, then drops you off in Soufriere, where you are taken by bus inside the volcano to see the hot sulfur springs, then off to a 5 minute hike to a natural hot springs waterfall. Lunch is fabulous, served on a quiet stretch of beach and cooked by Joey's mom. After lunch Joey takes you to Anse Chastanet beach, which is said to be the best snorkeling on the Island. Bring your underwater camera! There's much more to see, but time ran short for us. Have fun!
Travel to St. Lucia: I flew a non-stop charter from Boston to the larger airport to the south (Hewanorra). My brother and parents took a one-stop charter from Detroit. The airport is small compared to the US but very well organized. As we arrived in a long line to go through customs, a customs agent came up and lead us to a customs entry especially for parties with children or special needs (we have a 4 and 7 yr old). No one else was in this line...Very nice! Travel from the airport to most resorts is long (1 to 1.5 hrs) but interesting, winding through little villages and many banana plantations. However, even the strongest stomachs (including mine) seem to have problems with car sickness due to the curves and hills. Here's a word of advice that my son needed to take advantage of: Bring along an air sickness bag from the plane just in case. The trip is nothing to dread, just be ready for it. There are helicopters that can take you to some of the resorts in about 15 minutes, but its $100/person one way. The cab for 4 one way was $55 US. (There is a smaller airport in Castries called Vigie which is much closer to many of the resorts to the north. I was told that smaller planes use it, but it can be accessed from Miami via San Juan or from many of the other nearby islands. Or if you have your own jet....mine was broken (right!)) Lodging: We stayed at the Windjammer Landing north of Castries. This place consists of villas on a steep slope overlooking the sea. Absolutely spectacular views of hills, cruise ships heading off into the sunset, etc. and nice breezes. Nice beach but small. In general, the beaches in St. Lucia were not as nice in Barbados. The island is mostly volcanic, so the sand is brown or gray, and not as soft or pretty as the coral-based sand in Barbados. But who can complain when you have turquoise 80-degree water, right? The resort was well prepared for children, but as I experienced at a similar resort in Barbados, they make it easy for couples to avoid kids if they want. If you go, stay in a villa with plunge pool, its worth the extra cost. We spoke to some people who stayed at Wyndham Morgan, which is between Castries and our place, and said they liked it. I saw signs for some other resorts, but didn t see or hear anything to be able to give an opinion. >From what I have heard, the place for couples with money is Anse Chastenet. It is located south of Castries near Soufriere with incredible views of the Pitons (more on them later). Things to do: Our favorite experience was a day-trip on the Brig Unicorn. This 175-ft wooden sailboat was a beautiful way to see the island without the carsickness. We left Castries at 9AM and cruised for about 2.5 hrs to Soufriere. They served juice, coffee, tea, and Danish on the way down. The view of the Pitons as we entered Soufriere harbor was indescribable, shooting 2,500 ft straight out of the ocean. We then transferred to a minivan for a short ride to the sulfur springs. The springs consist of several bubbling black springs, and really aren't much to look at, but the trip is so short we didn't mind. The sulfur smell was strong, as my 4-yr old said "it stanked". The minivan then took us to the botanical gardens for a much too short visit. This part of the island is a rain forest, and the gardens have beautiful examples of many tropical flowers and trees. The only downside was that there were too many tourists, most apparently from some cruise ships. However, if you have time, plan on spending an 1.5 hr or so wandering around this place. Back to the ship, where little local boys on the dock in Soufriere will ask you to throw change off the dock which they retrieve in their teeth before it hits the bottom. After we set sail, we had a wonderful lunch, French wine, drinks, etc. Then we anchored and went swimming off the ship including using a rope to swing off the deck! Then back to Castries by 4 PM. Although I have read about this type of cruise before, I was always worried it would be a boozy, loud, tacky experience. Not this ship. Very classy, but a lot of fun for kids too. We also went to Pigeon Island near Rodney Bay to the north. There is an interesting colonial fort here, and some nice beaches. I would recommend renting a car and parking on the causeway that leads to the island before going on the island itself. There is a nice white sand beach that just goes on and on. Once you are on the island, there are two nice but very small beaches. We took a ferry from Rodney Bay to the island, and later wished we had been on our own schedule so we could have stayed longer on the causeway beaches. Food: We ate at the resort except for one night. I found the food to be quite good, but not spectacular. We ate one night at the Green Parrot in Castries, but I found it to be overpriced and overdone French food. People: I was pleasantly surprised that the people were much nicer than in Barbados. The St. Lucians are well-spoken and almost always very nice. They are quick to answer questions, and are ready to give good advice. Barbadians, on the other hand, are often aloof and sullen, with little eye contact and little apparent interest in helping. Stuff to buy: The open market in Castries is worth a visit. There are many stands filled with tropical fruits, most of which you won t recognize, but the best part are the spices. Every form you can imagine of fresh ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron, pepper, vanilla, etc. They sell them in little baskets or bags, or just as sticks or nuts. Definitely worth the visit. Across the street are numerous stands with just about every possible form of T- shirt imaginable. Although I m not a big T-shirt fan, even I found ones I liked. If you like Bob Marley shirts, you ve come to the right place. Also in Castries is the duty free shops at Pt. Seraphine. This area is right next to the cruise ship docking area. If you like sanitized shops that mostly sell products that have nothing to do with St. Lucia, and like being elbow to elbow with the cruise ship crowd, this is the place for you. We visited the Bagshaws Studio on the hill south of Castries, right next the Sandals resort. They have several stores on the island and sell nice batik shirts, dresses, etc. Prices: People use the Eastern Caribbean (EC) dollar here, which is equal to about 38 cents. But everyone I met took US money too. Things are expensive in St. Lucia (except for the spices and fruit), but I suspect this is the case on all Caribbean islands. Our resort was not all-inclusive, and after staying at an all- inclusive in Barbados for the previous two years, I did not like the idea of charging every little glass of juice or beer to the room. It just seems psychologically easier to have it all included, especially after your kids take two bites out of a $6.00 hamburger and say they aren t hungry! When you take cabs or other trips, the drivers, etc. do expect tips. I had no problem with that, since they were always willing to tell you all about their country, or the food, or whatever you were interested in hearing about. In Barbados, it seemed like they wanted a tip after mostly ignoring your existence (don t get me wrong, I loved Barbados, its just a very different people). That's all I can think of for now. I hope this was some help. My tan is already fading :(
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